Every being in the universe, consciously or unconsciously, is controlled by the invisible hand of time. In Troilus and Cressida, a play depicting the two dichotomous worlds of love and war, time manifests itself in its many and diverse functions. The concept of time transcends the individual characters to act as an overarching theme for certain aspects of the play, and although the characters may not explicitly refer to the word “time” in their lines, they point to the unique characteristics and larger ideas of time. Essentially, time affects how value is measured in the play, the characters’ sense of judgment, the emotional tone of specific scenes, how audiences perceive the nobles of the Elizabethan court, and finally the fates of the characters themselves.
The primary and most obvious function of time in the play is in its ability to dictate the value of people. During her monologue at the end of Act I Scene II, Cressida is the first to reference the formidable power that time mercilessly wields over men and women: “Things won are done, joy’s soul lies in the doing…Men price the thing ungained more than it is;” (1.2.280-282). Her observation places all relationships between man and woman within time’s sphere of influence and suggests that any man in pursuit of a woman values her less and less as he gains her love. The warriors of the play also hold a skewed or exaggerated perception of time, which can be seen on both the Greek and Trojan sides of the battle. In his attempts to manipulate Achilles and end the vicious cycle of inertia plaguing the Greek warriors, Ulysses warns Achilles of his imminent destruction by time—“Time hath, my lord, a wallet at his back, / Wherein he puts alms for oblivion, / A great-sized monster of ingratitudes” (3.3.145-147)—and forgetfulness—“good deeds past, which are devoured / As fast as they are made, forgot as soon / As done” (3.3.148-150). Here, Ulysses speaks of time forgetting what should be gratefully remembered, referring specifically to Achilles and his great deeds. The Trojans’ reasoning for continuing the war stems from a similarly delusional set of beliefs surrounding time. Troilus, galvanized by heroic ideals of chivalry, argues that although he “would not wish a drop of Trojan blood / Spent more in her defense” (2.2.197-198), Helen “is a theme of honor and renown” (2.2.199) for whom they must continue their campaign simply because of the situation of the time they find themselves in. He describes their situation in relation to a man’s obligation to his wife once they have shared vows of marriage: How may [he] avoid,
Although [his] will distaste what it elected,
The wife [he] chose? There can be no evasion
To blench from this (2.2.65-68)
Because the man and woman have become husband and wife, Troilus argues, the husband must forever honor that commitment even though it did not always exist. Troilus’ speech can therefore be summarized as thus: the war over Helen must continue because they have fought over her already, and these circumstances over time have given her worth.
Not only does time affect how value is measured in Troilus and Cressida, time also has the cruel power to change the characters’ views. In 5.2 of the play, the romantic plot is brought to its ultimate climax with Cressida’s vicious betrayal. After Diomedes leaves her tent, Cressida delivers a short speech reflecting upon the events recently taken place. She exclaims, “Ah, poor our sex! This fault in us I find, / The error of our eye directs our mind” (5.2.111-112). Instead of an emotional discourse of personal remorse, Cressida accredits her infidelity to the weakness of the female sex as a whole, liberating herself from criticism and any obligation to feel individually culpable. Ultimately, time is the culprit for “[directing her] mind” elsewhere, because despite her previous claims of boundless love and faithfulness to Troilus, Troilus represents the past and...